Good Ideas at the Time

Learning from Programs that Did Not Work Out as Expected

Unwelcome as the news might sometimes be, there is as much to learn from foundation programs that fail to meet expectations as there is from programs that have met or exceeded them—perhaps more. The truth is that not every program can succeed as planned. Thus, it is not surprising that some Foundation-funded programs that seemed like good ideas at the time have not turned out to be so in practice.The important thing is to learn from those programs that have not met expectations. A first step is trying to understand why programs did not work out as planned. Our review of Foundation-funded programs that did not meet expectations identified three primary reasons that they did not succeed.

The first is flawed strategy or design. Goals may be unrealistic or unreachable. Objectives may be unclear, or even conflicting. Various participants may have different ideas about what the goals are. Or the goal may be sound but the strategies to reach them problematic or unworkable.The second is a difficult environmental context. Though the goals may be worthy, society is simply not ready for them or they may not be politically feasible. Or conditions at the planning stage are overtaken by economic, political or social events, rendering even a well-conceived program ineffective in practice.The third is faulty execution. There are myriad reasons that programs are not implemented effectively—lack of management ability, poor interpersonal relations skills, flawed leadership, bad judgment, and intra-organizational controversy, to name just a few.

As important as understanding why programs have not lived up to expectations is drawing lessons from them. This involves learning how to identify problems early and, where possible, addressing them in a timely manner, as well as using the lessons from disappointing efforts in the design of new programs. In the first chapter of the Anthology, authors Colby and Isaacs provide some examples of Foundation-funded programs that did not meet expectations and lessons learned.